When Green is Not Good
If you’re overseeing and managing a produce department, you understand that your product is deteriorating every moment that it is on the rack. Time is a friend to fresh food, and your job is to take live food that has been separated from its life force (soil, sun, and water) and make it look appealing and desirable to shoppers. Creating and maintaining an attractive and effective produce department takes work and knowledge.
Of all the products that you carry, potatoes, once harvested, are difficult to keep looking appealing. A question that I hear a fair amount is “How do I keep potatoes from turning green”? This is indeed a problem, and one that can quickly sour a customer to your otherwise superb produce offerings. So let’s look at what causes the greening, as well as what steps we can take to reduce the problem.
It’s important to understand what creates the problem in the first place. Exposure to light, whether in the field, in storage, on the shelves, or at a home, can cause “greening” in potatoes. It’s actually a very natural process and occurs because of the formulation of chlorophyll. Chlorophyll is primarily found in leaves and near the surface of the potato and is responsible for a plant’s ability to make food through photosynthesis.
Obviously, the less light that directly hits the potatoes, the less likely they are to green. But temperature can also play a role since greening is an enzymatic response and enzyme activity increases as temperature increases. There is no greening when potatoes are kept at 40° F or below. It’s important not to store them below 40° as cracking may occur. Greening is most rapid at temperatures between 65-70° F. At temperatures higher than 70° F, the greening actually slows down, but again there is a trade-off as your potatoes are much more likely to decay and turn bad at higher temperatures. On average, typical grocery store lighting will induce greening within a week if the potatoes are not refrigerated or kept cool.
There are several steps that can be taken to minimize the greening process:
1) Turn the lights off at night (at least over your potato display) when you put your department “to sleep”. Cover the potatoes with burlap.
2) Locate your potato displays in areas of low light if possible; and keep away from windows and strongly lit areas.
3) Do not use spotlights on your potato display.
4) Keep your potatoes cool. Displaying at 40-42° F will not harm your potatoes and will dramatically reduce the greening process. For many, this may be the one key step that reduces or eliminates this issue.
One last consideration to discuss about green potatoes, which is – are they poisonous, or can they make you ill if you eat them? By itself, chlorophyll is not harmful. As the levels of chlorophyll increase, however, it’s an indication that levels of solanine (responsible for the bitter taste in a green potato) have increased as well. Potatoes naturally produce small amounts of solanine as a defense against insects, but the levels increase with prolonged exposure to light and warm temperatures. It is the occurrence of solanine that can cause illness when eating green potatoes. Studies indicate that a 100-pound person would have to eat about 16 ounces of a fully green potato to get sick from solanine. That is the weight of a large baked potato.
There is no doubt that greening potatoes are an issue. Unfortunately, there is no one silver bullet remedy that eliminates the problem. There are, however, some effective steps that can be taken to minimize this issue, and even though there may be a few trade-offs to consider as you move forward, it is possible to have beautiful “non-green”, healthy potatoes on display in your produce area.
Good luck with your potato adventure, and even though we wholeheartedly endorse a sustainable lifestyle – going green is not always the absolute best way to go.